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Is Internet Interconnection the New Network Neutrality? Panel Suggests a New Regulatory Creep

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WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 – The Federal Communications Commission is likely to experience increasing pressure to intervene in and resolve disputes involving internet interconnection, experts said on Tuesday at a panel hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute.

Central to the discussion was the question of whether the FCC should go as far as to mandate interconnection, should the agency intervene.

Responses from the panelists were mixed, albeit leaning toward the standpoint that outright mandatory interconnection may be unnecessary, and even counter-productive – although there was dissent from that position.

Early in the discussion, Carnegie Mellon University computer engineering professor Jon Peha explained the basics of concept of interconnection:

“The Internet feels like one big network when we use it, but if that were the case, there would be no such thing as interconnection,” Peha said “The internet is a network of networks that are packed over 66,000 independent, autonomous networks that somehow work as one, and each network in there is connected to one or more neighboring networks. That means information I send may travel from network to network before it finally gets to its intended recipient.”

“For example, I have a student right now in Uganda and I sent her a message, and amazingly, from whatever network I’m at, it somehow figures out how to get my message to her in Uganda,” he said.

The technical challenge is not only in getting the message to Uganda, but getting every network along the way to carry the information. There are tangible costs to this, he said.

“The solution to both of these challenges is buried in the magic of interconnection agreements,” Peha continued. “An interconnection agreement is where two networks come together and agree on both the technical and business issues of changing internet traffic, including ‘will I carry any of your traffic, and if so, how much will I carry?'”

Up until now, interconnections have been created generally been created through by private, unregulated negotiations, but that is changing. The role of content distributor delivery networks and peering relationships are multiplying. The question, Peha said, is what to do about it.

Ruth Milkman, chief of staff for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, argued there were historical precedents for mandatory interconnection. She pointed to railroad systems and electrical networks of early in the United States as having evolved partly due to through regulatory oversight.

“There have been diverse regulatory approaches to ensuring effective interconnection,” Milkman said. “Some have involved a relatively lighter touch; others a heavier hand. Often, price regulation has been part of the package. At the bottom, however, is that a network without connections and interconnections is one that simply doesn’t work. Disconnected networks simply do not serve the public interest.”

Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, opined said that interconnection is was essential, especially particularly when the all communications networks is are converging into onto an internet protocol network. While the FCC should not micro-manage private agreements, a public policy backstop was needed for private enterprise interconnection agreements.

“It’s [naive] to believe that somehow, magically, this will work itself out given the way the network’s changing,” he said. “Some FCC involvement would have a lot of benefits,” he said. “I think it’s not right to say ‘do we have private agreements or do we have the FCC?’ We can absolutely have lots of room for private agreements but still have a sense that there are certain practices which are anti-competitive. ”

Werbach distinguished net neutrality and interconnection as separate issues. Interconnection  concerns the “edge of provider networks, not the network,” Werbach said. Yet the two have similar implications. Both situations leave open the possibility of an ISP internet service provider degrading and differentiating between traffic, he said.

Economists Incorporated Senior Fellow Hal Singer and Gerry Faulhaber, professor emeritus of business economics and public policy from at the University of Pennsylvania, did not favor regulatory oversight of private agreements. Faulhaber scoffed at the idea: “light touch regulation…is sort of like jumbo shrimp – it’s kind of an oxymoron.”

“Interconnection is not just a communications issue,” Faulhaber said. “It occurs in virtually every business in which the producer of something – it could be canned peas – has to distribute something to customers through distributors like supermarkets. Distributing through supermarkets works so nobody’s going for regulation of supermarkets…. We have an [internet] system that works.”

Calling for regulation of internet access because networks have changed is a fallacy, he said. The Internet has maintained itself for 30 years. The FCC, by contrast, has a “terrible reputation as an adjudicator.”

History has consistently shown that limited regulation causes two things to occur: rent- seeking and a slippery slope of more regulation.

“Once a commission interests itself in a particular area, puts a sign out that says ‘open business,’ which is what we did [with] the open internet order. What happens? Firms realize, ‘oh I don’t get to make money looking at customers and making investments. I make money by going to the regulators and getting them to favor me and disfavor others. For thirty 30 years, we never had complaints about interconnections. Since 2010, we’ve had a number…why? ‘Open for business.’

“The second thing that happens is even though commissioners may say ‘we want to limit how much we regulate,’ that won’t happen. They will be under constant pressure to expand the regulatory writ. Level 3 in 2010 said ‘let’s try to leverage network neutrality into regulating interconnection.’ It looks like we’re now leveraging the interest of the FCC in net neutrality into interest in interconnection.”

Singer added that the costs of mandatory interconnection outweighed the benefits, precisely because there have been relatively few network disputes.

“If the probability of these disruptions happening is close to zero, then the expected benefit of imposing mandatory interconnection is small as well,” Singer said.

On the cost side, Singer argued that if networks are forced to connect, it could upset providers’ “make or buy decision” and undermine some of the goals of Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1996 – namely, to encourage deployment.

“Some people point to Sprint and T-Mobile’s reluctance to deploy their spectrum into rural areas,” he said. “Mandatory interconnection and data roaming agreements cause them to want to take the ‘buy’ decision over the ‘make’ decision – so I’m worried about what it would do to incentives, not just of ISPs, but also of these middle-mile folks and content providers who are now getting a little taste of what it’s like to be in last-mile access.”

Taking a more neutral stance, Peha said he could see both sides of the argument on intervention by the FCC’s intervention. Ultimately, the agency has to provide more concrete evidence that there is a significant problem in the first place. The FCC also has to prove it can make things better.

“I would like to see more information gathered,” Peha said. “I think that’s where the FCC can do something constructive is to try to shed a little light on all those private agreements and just see if we have to be concerned about them.”

Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy, expressed more condescension, arguing that even though it is essential for everyone to interconnect, several decades’ worth of history have proven that private commercial agreements can get the internet to that point.

Regulation, said, would eliminate flexibility and consequently lead to investments drying up.

“Barring a breakdown, we really should not be intervening because the rigidities that regulation would bring to the system would probably create far more chaos than the occasional disputes that you have between parties,” said Kovacs.

Kevin Werbach concluded by seeking to rebut arguments in opposition to regulation.

“I would hate to see the internet turn into a supermarket that’s just selling us peas,” Werbach said. “That’s not what the internet is today… not [the] open platform that generated so much extraordinary innovation. It’s a linear market – nothing comes back from the consumer the other way…. That’s not the internet we should have in the future.”

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FCC

FCC Institutes ACP Transparency Data Collection

The FCC stated that it will lean on the newly mandated broadband nutrition labels.

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Photo of people working on computers, cropped, in 2011 by Victor Grigas

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission last week adopted an order that mandated annual reporting from all providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal initiative that subsidizes the internet-service and device costs of low-income Americans.

The FCC order establishing the ACP Transparency Data Collection, not released until Wednesday, requires ACP-affiliated providers to disclose prices, subscription rates, and other plan characteristics on yearly basis. The FCC stated that it will lean on the newly mandated broadband nutrition labels, which, it says, will ease regulatory burdens for providers.

The FCC created the Transparency Data Collection pursuant to the statutory requirements of the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. The commission adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking in June.

Earlier this year, T-Mobile endorsed the nutrition-label method of collection. Industry associations including IMCOMPAS and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Associations warned the FCC against instituting excessive reporting burdens.

“To find out whether this program is working as Congress intended, we need to know who is participating, and how they are using the benefit,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.  “So we’re doing just that.  The data we collect will help us know where we are, and where we need to go. We’re also standardizing the way we collect data, and looking for other ways to paint a fuller picture of how many eligible households are participating in the ACP.  We want all eligible households to know about this important benefit for affordable internet service.”

Although the ACP is highly touted by the FCC, the White House, and industry experts, there is evidence the fund has been exploited by fraudsters, according to a watchdog. In September, the FCC Office of Inspector General issued a report that found the ACP handed out more than $1 million in improper benefits. In multiple instances, according to the OIG, the information of a qualifying individual was improperly used for hundreds of applications, achieving payouts of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last month, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., contacted 13 leading internet service providers, requesting details on alleged fishy business practices connected to the ACP and its predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

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Broadband's Impact

Federal Communications Commission Mandates Broadband ‘Nutrition’ Labels

The FCC also mandated that internet service provider labels be machine-readable.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, November 18, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday afternoon ordered internet providers to display broadband “nutrition” labels at points of sale that include internet plans’ performance metrics, monthly rates, and other information that may inform consumers’ purchasing decisions.

The agency released the requirement less than 24 hours before it released the first draft of its updated broadband map.

The FCC mandated that labels be machine-readable, which is designed to facilitate third-party data-gathering and analysis. The commission also requires that the labels to be made available in customers’ online portals with the provide the and “accessible” to non-English speakers.

In addition to the broadband speeds promised by the providers, the new labels must also display typical latency, time-of-purchase fees, discount information, data limits, and provider-contact information.

“Broadband is an essential service, for everyone, everywhere. Because of this, consumers need to know what they are paying for, and how it compares with other service offerings,”  FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. 

“For over 25 years, consumers have enjoyed the convenience of nutrition labels on food products.  We’re now requiring internet service providers to display broadband labels for both wireless and wired services.  Consumers deserve to get accurate information about price, speed, data allowances, and other terms of service up front.”

Industry players robustly debated the proper parameters for broadband labels in a flurry of filings with the FCC. Free Press, an advocacy group, argued for machine-readable labels and accommodations for non-English speakers, measures which were largely opposed by trade groups. Free Press also advocated a requirement that labels to be included on monthly internet bills, without which the FCC “risks merely replicating the status quo wherein consumers must navigate fine print, poorly designed websites, and byzantine hyperlinks,” group wrote.

“The failure to require the label’s display on a customer’s monthly bill is a disappointing concession to monopolist ISPs like AT&T and Comcast and a big loss for consumers,” Joshua Stager, policy director of Free Press, said Friday.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association clashed with Free Press in its FCC filing and supported the point-of-sale requirement.

“WISPA welcomes today’s release of the FCC’s new broadband label,” said Vice President of Policy Louis Peraertz. “It will help consumers better understand their internet access purchases, enabling them to quickly see ‘under the hood,’ and allow for an effective apples-to-apples comparison tool when shopping for services in the marketplace.”

Image of the FCC’s sample broadband nutrition label

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FCC

FCC to Establish New Space Bureau, Chairwoman Says

‘The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head.’

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Photo of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, via fcc.gov

WASHINGTON, November 3, 2022 — The Federal Communications Commission will add a new space bureau that will modernize regulations and facilitate innovation, Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced Thursday.

The new bureau is intended to facilitate American leadership in the space economy, boost the Commission’s technical capacity, and foster interagency cooperation, Rosenworcel said, speaking at the National Press Club.

“The new space age has turned everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services on its head,” Rosenworcel said. “But the organizational structures of the [FCC] have not kept pace,” she added.

The space economy is “on a monumental run” of growth and innovation, the chairwoman argued, and the FCC must remodel itself to facilitate continued growth. Rosenworcel said the commission is currently reviewing 64,000 new satellite applications, and she further noted that 98 percent of all satellites launched in 2021 provided internet connectivity. By the end off 2022, operators will set a new record for satellites launched into orbit, she said.

The FCC will not take on new responsibilities, Rosenworcel said, but the announced restructuring will help the agency “perform[] existing statutory responsibilities better.” In September, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R–Wash., warned the FCC against overreaching its statutory mandate and voiced support for robust congressional oversight – a position reiterated by House staffers Wednesday.

“The formation of a dedicated space bureau within the FCC is a positive step for satellite operators and customers across the United States,” said Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs at Amazon’s satellite broadband Project Kuiper, on a panel following Rosenworcel’s announcement.

“An important part of [Rosenworcel’s] space agenda is ensuring that there is a competitive environment in all aspects of that space,” said Umair Javed, the chairwoman’s chief counsel, during the panel. “So we’ve taken action to update our rules on spectrum sharing to make sure that there are opportunities for multiple systems to be successful in low Earth orbit.

“We’ve granted a number of experimental authorizations to companies that are doing really new…things,” Umair continued.

The FCC in September required that low–Earth orbit satellite debris be removed within five years of mission completion, a move Rosenworcel said would clear the way for new innovation.

In August, the FCC revoked an $885 million grant to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite-broadband service. FCC Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington criticized the reversal, and Starlink has since appealed it.

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